The prevalence of microbial life in permafrost up to several million years (Ma) old has been well documented. However, the long-term survivability, evolution, and metabolic activity of the entombed microbes over this time span remain underexplored. We integrated aspartic acid (Asp) racemization assays with metagenomic sequencing to characterize the microbial activity, phylogenetic diversity, and metabolic functions of indigenous microbial communities across a ~0.01- to 1.1-Ma chronosequence of continuously frozen permafrost from northeastern Siberia. Although Asp in the older bulk sediments (0.8 to 1.1 Ma) underwent severe racemization relative to that in the youngest sediment (~0.01 Ma), the much lower D-Asp/ L-Asp ratio (0.05 to 0.14) in the separated cells from all samples suggested that indigenous microbial communities were viable and metabolically active in ancient permafrost up to 1.1 Ma. The microbial community in the youngest sediment was the most diverse and was dominated by the phyla Actinobacteria and Proteobacteria. In contrast, microbial diversity decreased dramatically in the older sediments, and anaerobic, spore-forming bacteria within Firmicutes became overwhelmingly dominant. In addition to the enrichment of sporulation-related genes, functional genes involved in anaerobic metabolic pathways such as fermentation, sulfate reduction, and methanogenesis were more abundant in the older sediments. Taken together, the predominance of spore-forming bacteria and associated anaerobic metabolism in the older sediments suggest that a subset of the original indigenous microbial community entrapped in the permafrost survived burial over geological time.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
- Food Science
- Ancient permafrost
- Aspartic acid racemization
- Microbial activity
- Sporeforming bacteria